Written by: Eli Morgan Gesner
Directed by: Eli Morgan Gesner
Dylan Penn as Maya
Ronen Rubinstein as Dante
Genevieve Hudson-Price as Alexa
Honor Titus as Loki
“Adverse possession” is the legal term for occupying someone else's property. It's also as good a term as any for being taken over by a horrific weaponized plague, but I'm getting ahead of myself. Say you live in Minnesota but own some property in Iowa that was thought by you to be unoccupied. Say then that someone, without your knowledge, moved into that property and lived there for a certain period of time. At the end of that period of time (it's different in every state, but Iowa's code states 8 – 10 years), that squatter is no longer a squatter, but your legal tenant, and in order to get rid of them you have to go through the legal eviction process just like you would someone who held a lease. Every state in the US has statutes on squatter's rights. The disseisor (the person dispossessing the true owner of the land) must occupy the property for the entirety of the statute (anywhere from as little as five, up to as many as 30 years) before they can lay claim to it. With abandoned and condemned buildings, it gets a little trickier because government is usually involved at that point, and the disseisor has to make a case that they were operating as a business rather than as government in order to even begin to have a claim.
Now, a bunch of junkies and lunatics probably wouldn't have the forethought to look any of this up. A group of relatively intelligent young punk rockers and artists rebelling against whatever you got, man, probably would, though. In which case, you'd think one of them would have tried to rally everyone together and make a case for their occupying the crumbling shithole they all share. That brings us to tonight's movie, in which poor little rich girl Maya runs away from her shitty, neglectful parents to live with her boyfriend Dante. What she isn't prepared for is that Dante is living in a condemned tenement building as part of the aforementioned group of young punk rockers and artists, surrounded by the afore-aforementioned bunch of junkies and lunatics. Among them are a severely alcoholic, self-hating closeted gay lapsed rabbi named Bigfoot and his transgender prostitute girl/boyfriend; a hulking, openly gay, Rammstein-looking neo-Nazi leather daddy named Gault (my favorite character, played with scenery-devouring gusto by Johnny Messner); and most importantly, Cookie, the resident narcotics chemist who distributes his wares hidden inside fortune cookies.
Cookie isn't your every-day dope peddler, though. That's just for pocket money. His real pet project is designing biological weapons for Russian terrorists, and he's got a batch just about ready to go. Unfortunately for Dante, Maya, Loki, Gault, Shynola, and all the other assorted misfits squatting in this run down building, the runoff from Cookie's cooking has been stewing in the dilapidated plumbing system of the old building. Now it's issuing noxious fumes from drains, getting into the water supply, and turning the tenants into deranged, super-humanly strong murder machines. Who will survive, and how much glop will be coating them?
I want to point out first that this is not a zombie movie. It's not even a 28 Days Later sort-of-but-not-really zombie movie. Netflix will tell you otherwise, but this is 100% a virus movie, like The Crazies. The is no doubt the infected are still alive. They just happen to be melting while they're trying to kill you. I found that very refreshing, as I was fully expecting (and fully resigned to) zombies. It's nice to be surprised.
The cast are all great, although the secondary characters absolutely steal the movie out from under our protagonists in every single scene. Possibly the weakest link is Dylan Penn, although that could simply be a byproduct of the fact that she plays the bland, normal viewpoint character against a backdrop of some of the most vibrantly weird exploitation movie characters I've seen in ages. Given little more to do than be by turns grossed out and scared, she doesn't get a lot of room to shine. I remember even less of Dante's part, so perhaps Ronen Rubinstein is the dud here, although no one is truly bad in this. It's no crime to be unmemorable when you're up against a guy who looks like Till Lindemann's younger brother leading a gimp around on a leash. The script is sharp and funny. It takes a while to get there, but once things kick off the gore is plentiful, thoroughly disgusting, and nearly all practical gags.
Now, we all remember the craze for everyone making “throwback grindhouse” movies a while back. It still happens once in a while, although I think the bulk of that fad has passed. Sometimes it's a lot of fun (Frankenstein Created Bikers), and sometimes it's just a chore (I dunno, pick one, there were about ten thousand of the damn things after Grindhouse came out). The vast majority of filmmakers jumping on that bandwagon appeared to be operating under the assumption that simply adding a bunch of post-production film grain and artifacting to their picture automatically gave them 42nd street cred regardless of the actual substance of their movie. It's such a treat to see a movie from a filmmaker who understands that the true spirit of the grindhouse can be summoned up without a hint of faux print scratches.
Setting aside some obvious anachronisms like editing style and being shot digitally, Condemned totally feels like a 70s or early 80s NYC exploitation flick. It really captures that pre-Giuliani squalor. This movie is a treasure. A love letter to pre-gentrification New York; to Milligan and Hennenlotter and the Findlays and every diseased weirdo who brought their own personal vision of hell to life with a few thousand bucks and a box full of short ends. The budget may have been a little higher, and those short ends are now endless thanks to modern technology, but Eli Gesner gets it. I hope we get a lot more sleazy, slimy nastiness from him in the future.